Oyster Boy Review 11  
  April 1999
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Lisa Williams's The Hammered Dulcimer

Florence Nash

  The Hammered Dulcimer.
Lisa Williams.
Utah State University Press, 1998.
64 pages, $15.95 (hardcover).
ISBN: 0874212499

I sit on a porch

looking out at the morning
and it feels like a precipice
between the known and the unknown.

It seems a miracle
that we are not always afraid.

From a poem called "Sunday Morning"—not the only echo of Wallace Stevens in the book—these lines capture much about this intrepid first collection, winner of the 1997-98 May Swenson Poetry Award. In his Foreword, judge John Hollander writes, "Lisa Williams's poems often start out in song and end in epistemology." Williams looks hard at the world around her, its edges and undersides and shadows. And, like Stevens, she looks at her own looking. Under the pressure of her unblinking attention, fields and trees and birds—oh, especially birds!—open into a limitless interior universe, and the poet, unfazed, moves off the porch and into the unknown. The reader, on the other hand, cannot help but feel a tremor as the poet forges ahead into this interior unlocking, this struggle with a God who kisses her throat as he slips the noose around it. One almost wants to turn away, except that the language is beautiful, and the poet neither defiant nor self-dramatizing. The sense that she is holding her epistemological feet to the fire is mitigated by her calm control and disarming use of form. Many of these poems are tercets, as rhythmic as chant, ranging nimbly from a ride in her grandmother's new turquoise car to a butchered rattlesnake's "warm dull throbbing of a heart / held carefully on my open hand/before I let it fall." In the lovely "A Story of Swans," she counters a young girl's romantic vision:

I could tell her beneath the dull waters
where fins, purling muscles, quick gleams
flash the dark, there's the body of dreams.

Lisa Williams isn't easy on the reader or herself. But what a dark, steady, lyric voice she has. What poetry.